Executives are hired to maximize profits; that is their responsibility to their company’s shareholders. Even if executives wanted to forgo some profit to benefit society, they could expect to lose their jobs if they tried—and be replaced by managers who would restore profit as the top priority,” — Arneel Karnani, University of Michigan associate professor of strategy, Wall Street Journal, August 23, 2010.

“…It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.” – Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations.

Right now, the public is more likely to view greed as a deadly sin than an engine of economic growth,” Edward Glaeser, Harvard Economist, New York Times, January 6, 2009.

When push comes to shove, are corporate executives (especially at the C-level) more inclined to worship at the altar of fiduciary responsibility as opposed to corporate social responsibility (CSR)?

And conversely are public relations practitioners more inclined to counsel corporate social responsibility over fiduciary responsibility to these very same executives? And if so, is there a disconnect to the detriment of the corporate communicator? Is this a primary reason there are not more seats at corporate boardroom tables for PR pros?

The debate between fiduciary responsibility (maximizing profitability for investing shareholders) vs. corporate social responsibility (doing good deeds benefitting stakeholders in places where a company does business) is not new.

Nobel Prize winning American economist and academic Milton Friedman (1912-2006) took a Kantian stance (categorical imperative) toward a publicly traded company maintaining its fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders in his oft-quoted New York Times Magazine piece in 1970. Friedman said: “…A corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct re­sponsibility to his employers. That responsi­bility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while con­forming to the basic rules of the society.”

Echoing these sentiments is Harvard professor and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers who stated: “It is hard in this world to do well. It is hard to do good. When I hear a claim that an institution is going to do both, I reach for my wallet. You should too.”

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Besides the Friedman Doctrine, there is the matter of law that is directly applicable when it comes to striving for profitability. The federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974 was passed to protect the retirement assets of Americans.

Specifically, the law defines a “fiduciary as anyone who exercises discretionary authority or control over a plan’s management or assets, including anyone who provides investment advice to the plan. Fiduciaries who do not follow the principles of conduct may be held responsible for restoring losses to the plan.” Considering that the overwhelming majority of securities are owned by institutional investors (buy-side and sell-side analysts purchasing stocks for retirement funds and big-ticket clients among others), the implied threat of regulatory action and/or liability to plaintiff strike suits aimed at deep pockets is obvious.

Also coming into play is the Nexus of Contracts Theory that posits that corporations are essentially a series of contractual obligations with stakeholders, such as the shareholders who provide capital (market capitalization or market value) to publicly traded companies in return for a potential monetary gain. Kenneth Ayotte and Henry Hansmann in their 2011 A Nexus of Contracts Theory and Legal Entities contend that a firm’s most valuable rights are its contractual assets. The question is whether a company can ethically risk running afoul of these contractual obligations in the pursuit of a higher public good?

Arneel Karnani, University of Michigan associate professor of strategy, is more aligned with Friedman than the growing movement toward CSR, particularly among the practitioners in the public relations community.  In his 2010 Wall Street Journal commentary, The Case Against Social Responsibility, Karnani states categorically that when push comes to shove executives with regularity will come down on the side of fiduciary responsibility for their shareholders and equity-holding employees. To do so otherwise, potentially impacts executive compensation, invites the eventual removal of the chief executive officer and chief lieutenants, prompts ERISA enforcement, and spurs almost certain litigation by the plaintiff’s bar on behalf of alleged aggrieved shareholders.

Fiduciary, imperative “must;” CSR, subjunctive, “should?”

The specter of these very real risks does not mean that CSR is not a factor in today’s boardrooms, even though Karnani uses the categorical words, “irrelevant or ineffective.” Karnani does acknowledge that the prospect of imposed additional costs—regulatory mandates, taxes, punitive fines, public embarrassment—on socially unacceptable behavior (see  2010 BP “Deepwater Horizon” debacle) can drive corporate executives to be at least mindful of CSR.

Karnani cites the global movement toward more fuel-efficient vehicles or healthier fast foods as being driven more out of consideration for profits (e.g. Toyota and McDonald’s respectively)  than a desire to reduce energy consumption and promote healthy diets. J.D. Margolis et al in their 2007 Does It Pay to Be Good? uses the anecdote of Home Depot building playgrounds as more of an effort to stimulate “Corporate Financial Performance” (CFP) as to demonstrate “Corporate Social Performance” (CSP).

According to these authors, all of these CSR activities are direct offshoots of the quest for profits and the maximization of shareholder value.  For example, Karnani said that pleas for corporate social responsibility will only be accepted by executives smart enough to realize that doing the right thing directly coincides with the pursuit of profit. “Pleas for corporate social responsibility will be truly embraced only by those executives who are smart enough to see that doing the right thing is a byproduct of their pursuit of profit,” Karnani wrote.

There is no argument about the mandated fiduciary obligation of publicly traded companies to maximize profits within the context of applicable laws and regulations for the benefit of their investing shareholders. Having said that, just blindly adopting Friedman’s deontological approach in rejecting CSR or Karnani’s skepticism ignore significant global trends in favor of Corporate Social Responsibility.

The Tide Turns?

Professor Charles W.L. Hill in his 2011 seventh edition of Global Business Today defined CSR as the idea that business executives should carefully consider the social consequences of economic actions when making business decisions. CSR advocates contend that businesses, particularly large multi-national enterprises (MNEs), need to recognize their noblesse oblige (Hill’s emphasis) and actually give back to the societies that make their economic success possible. Is this an Utilitarian approach, if shareholders do not receive the ultimate maximum financial return as a result of an increased emphasis on CSR?

Henry Mintzberg et al in their 2002 essay Beyond Selfishness argued that the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 (at least for a short-period of time) changed the prevailing thinking of Wall Street denizens to actually consider engaging with society. Before the hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, the overwhelming focus was on the Internet bubble of the 1990s and the Enron-era rapid acquisition (“irrational exuberance” in the words of Alan Greenspan) of capital. “A society devoid of selfishness is certainly difficult to imagine. But a society that glorifies selfishness can be imagined only as base.”

One very clear trend in favor of CSR is the growing global respect for non-governmental organizations (increasingly seen as independent third-parties). Public esteem and trust for these NGOs has steadily increased. For example, the 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that not only are NGOs the most trusted in society, but their level of popular support is growing from 57 percent in 2010 to 61 percent in 2011. Certainly, the increasing public trust in these NGOs has prompted companies (e.g.Starbucks) to enter into “synergistic” relationships with these non-profits, such as Conservation International and the Environmental Defense Fund.

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The Edelman Trust Barometer reported that trust in business as measured by a quantitative survey of more than 5,000 “informed publics” grew marginally worldwide from 54-to-56 percent between 2010 and 2011, but actually declined in the US from 54- to-46 percent, and in the UK from 49-to-44 percent. Business trails NGOs in trust, but still leads the media, which only saw its trust score rise from 45-to-49 percent between 2010 and 2011.

The Edelman survey illustrated the stark difference when it comes to public benefit of the doubt between a company that is seen as trustworthy and one that is not. If a company is distrusted then it only takes on average only one-or-two negative Internet mentions for 57 percent to believe a particular item of negative information about a company. Conversely, if a company is trusted then it takes on average only one-or-two positive mentions for 51 percent to believe a particular item of positive information about a company. Edelman concluded that it was good business to align profit and purpose for social benefit.

Another reason for companies collaborating with environmental non-profits is to inoculate a firm against public attacks by more fundamentalist organizations that opt for confrontation rather than cooperation with corporations. For example, Global Exchange launched a protest at Starbuck’s annual meeting and demanded that the company sell more fair trade coffee. The company also was subjected to repeated instances of antagonism from Seattle Audubon and others.

Commenting earlier this year on the net effect of Starbucks CSR activities, Rick Cohen of the Non-Profit Quarterly wrote: “Whether one likes or dislikes Starbucks or its philanthropy, the Starbucks CSR model looks like a recipe that many corporations recognize as a solid formula for social responsibility.

And what is the present-day view of company employees if their employer is perceived to be only concerned with enriching its shareholders? This question was posed by Harvard Economist Edward L. Glaeser in his 2009 Can Business Do Well and Do Good?  He offered that the tide is turning against the Friedman Doctrine as business giants, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, are increasingly arguing the value of CSR.

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This question was the focus of a MIT Sloan Management essay by C.B. Bhattacharya et al (2008) Using Corporate Social Responsibility to Win the War for Talent, which calls upon employers under pressure to attract-and-retain the best-and-the-brightest employees. Bhattacharya advocates that corporations use internal marketing to champion a company’s CSR efforts as part of a portfolio of “job products” offered to valuable employees. The results of this additional motivation can contribute to job satisfaction, retention and higher productivity.

However, companies must learn to engage in CSR and communicate the news about these activities to its vital internal audience. Many times a company makes only cursory management statements along the lines of “we support recycling” or buries a one-paragraph mention of CSR activities as a throw-away in the text of a chief executive officer’s annual report letter (SEC filing 10K).

Bhattacharya et al state that CSR can serve as a “reputation shield” to parry negative thrusts by NGOs about a company’s impact on society. Knowledge of and employee participation in these CSR activities can also “energize” employees, stimulating them to work harder, be more productive and to focus more on quality. The latter can also contribute to fiduciary responsibility as Harvard Business Professor Michael Porter has argued that quality-driven differentiation along with lower costs are the two basic strategies for creating value for customers.

A corporation’s “reputation shield” has become even more tenuous in this age of 24/7/365 digital self-publishing. As a result, a company’s accumulated brand equity and carefully nurtured reputation are effectively traded every minute of every day online, just like a NYSE or NASDAQ security. And some of these traders are competitors or others that do not have a company’s best interests in mind. Building up goodwill through being perceived as a solid corporate citizen may help mitigate broadsides by those who harbor different agendas.  The recent web disclosure that Burson Marsteller was secretly reaching out to bloggers to chastise Google on privacy concerns without disclosing its client, rival Facebook, turned out to be a black mark on the reputation and brand of both Burson Marsteller and Facebook.

A Balanced Approach?

The debate between the fiduciary responsibility adherents on one side and the devotees of corporate responsibility on the other is not new. In at least one case, the debate was longitudinally conducted by the same organization.

In 1981, the Business Roundtable concluded: “Balancing the shareholder’s expectations of maximum return against other priorities is one of the fundamental problems confronting corporate management. The shareholder must receive a good return, but the legitimate concerns of other constituencies (customers, employees, communities, suppliers, and society at large) also must have the appropriate attention…(Lead managers) believe that by giving enlightened consideration to balancing the legitimate claims of all its constituents, a corporation will best serve its shareholders.”

Sixteen-years later, the Business Roundtable completely reversed its field stating that a corporate board of directors cannot pit its shareholders against other stakeholders. The Business Roundtable said that imposing conflicting demands on corporate boards is unworkable and when push comes to shove between customers, employees and shareholders, a board must down on the side of shareholders.

Even though the debate is not new, the growing trend in favor of corporate social responsibility over merely adherence to fiduciary duties is gaining speed. For example, David Bach and David Bruce Allen in their 2010 What Every CEO Needs to Know About Nonmarket Strategy offer that non-market strategy recognizes that corporations are social and political entities, not just economic agents.

Glaeser wrote that company employees are becoming less enamored with the notion of working their entire lives only to pad the wallets of anonymous shareholders. Even though he agrees with Friedman’s doctrine that corporations “overriding moral obligation” is the fulfillment of fiduciary responsibilities and the maximization of shareholder wealth, he is also a fan of the notion of “Creative Capitalism.”

Michael Kinsley and Conor Clarke wrote the book Creative Capitalism, gathering the contributions of dozens of participants on the issue of corporate social responsibility, including Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and Berkshire Hathaway billionaire Warren E. Buffett. Both offer counterpoints to the sentiments expressed by Milton Friedman, Larry Summers and others.

In particular, Gates has called for “market-based social change” and for doing the essential work that addresses the world’s inequities. “This kind of creative capitalism matches business expertise with needs in the developing world to find markets that are already there, but are untapped,” Gates said. “Sometimes market forces fail to make an impact in developing countries not because there’s no demand, or even because money is lacking, but because we don’t spend enough time studying the needs and requirements of that market.” The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given $26.1 billion cumulatively, mainly for health and productivity improvements in the developing world.

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A Seat at the Table?

Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the fiduciary duty vs. corporate social responsibility debate, public relations practitioners — internal and external — are coming down reflexively on the side of Corporate Social Responsibility. The question is whether this is a wise personal public relations strategy, when PR practitioners have long complained about not being given a seat at the corporate board room table.

To gain a coveted seat, a budding corporate executive must command respect and exude gravitas. Certainly there is plenty of evidence in support of the growing trend toward CSR including the Edelman Trust Barometer, the notion of “Creative Capitalism” and increasing number of prominent executives who champion CSR. The danger lies in being seen as single mindedly arguing CSR, creating the dangerous perception of being oblivious to a publicly traded company’s fiduciary duties.

Karnani in his commentary issues the following warning: “In circumstances in which profits and social welfare are in direct opposition, an appeal to corporate social responsibility will almost always be ineffective, because executives are unlikely to act voluntarily in the public interest and against shareholder interests.”

Public relations practitioners cannot exclusively sing the siren song of Corporate Social Responsibility without acknowledging and implementing the moral obligation of fiduciary responsibility to shareholders, equity-participation employees and to those who are genuinely interested in effective corporate governance (see Sarbanes-Oxley).

Fiduciary duties are legal-and-moral requirements for publicly traded corporations. Diversified shareholders are investing a portion of their future in the projected success of a company. Management is obligated to effectively respond to these investors.

At the same time, they are not the only stakeholders in society. That is where corporate social responsibility comes into the equation. A company doing business in a community does have an ethical responsibility to give back to society and to apply pressure to its supply chain to do the same.

Fiduciary and CSR are not mutually exclusive ethical requirements. Public relations practitioners need to worship at both altars. If not, corporate executives may stop listening before the public relations pros stop talking.

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